Edible DC: A Culinary Research Journey Along the Silk Road

From Edible DC by Lani Furbank:

“The team behind popular DC restaurant Compass Rose recently returned from a 36-day trip through Morocco, Tunisia, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. Owner Rose Previte says with a laugh, “It wasn’t a vacation. [We] came back with scars, and I’m proud of them. I think we all are. We’re, like, ‘We did it. And we said never said no to trying anything.’”

Their eight-person caravan traversed more than 15 cities and 10 open air markets, tracing the path of the Silk Road and ancient migration routes. Leaving no stone unturned, the team started their days with 5am wake-up calls, then long drives across rural countrysides and transcontinental flights in the middle of the night. It was all in preparation for their new venture, Maydan, which is set to open this October.

Inspiration for the forthcoming restaurant stems from the shared use of the term maydan throughout the Caucasus, North Africa and the Middle East, which Previte first encountered while living in Russia. The word, regardless of varying spellings and pronunciations, refers to a town square or a central gathering place in a city. “It’s an Arabic root to the word, but all these cultures use it, whether they speak Farsi or Georgian or North African dialects of Arabic,” Previte explains.

Maydan will embody the energy of a city’s center. “We are trying to create a gathering place, or somewhere that everyone can come together,” Previte says. “We really just want people to mingle and gather and make friends with strangers.” As guests enter the restaurant, they’ll walk into the square, which will house a wood-fired hearth and a large bar. On the mezzanine level above, there will be 60 seats for family-style dining.

The menu will feature cuisine from the countries the team explored on their trip, as well as Iran and Syria, which weren’t on the itinerary due to safety concerns. Previte refers to these areas of the world as forbidden lands. “I think these cuisines are underrepresented in the U.S., but it’s because they’ve been kept from us. The average American can’t go there,” she says. Still, they gained insight into the cooking traditions of Iran and Syria through Georgia and Lebanon. “We got as close as we possibly could. At one point, we were 12 miles from the Syrian border,” Previte says.

The culinary history of these regions is intertwined with migration patterns. “A lot of dishes that once started in Old-World Persia, you’ll find in Georgia,” Chef Chris Morgan explains. “You’ll try something in Morocco, and then you’ll go to Lebanon and have something that’s almost the same dish.” That’s where the lines become blurred. “Everyone always argues where everything comes from,” he says. “‘We were the first to do this’ is one of the most common lines I think I heard the entire trip.”

One way to trace the evolution of food traditions is by taking a deep dive into baking. “You can really see how migration affected food,” Previte says. “The easiest way to see it is the bread.”

“It’s really wild to see how similar the breads are between those countries,” Morgan adds. “Everyone in those countries uses bread as a vessel, and it brings people together. Everybody breaks bread at every meal, which is something we find really exciting and want people to do at Maydan.”

To that end, Maydan will have a traditional bread oven, which is called a toné in Georgia. The clay vessel is similar to a tandoor, and variations of it can be found throughout the region. Mastering how to use it was a top priority during the team’s research endeavor, but instead of turning to cookbooks or highly trained chefs, Previte wanted her team to learn from the true experts: grandmas.

So, the trip’s itinerary was crafted to put the two executive chefs, Morgan and Gerald Addison, in the kitchens of women who build these ovens themselves and brave flames and 500° temperatures daily to perfectly craft their bread by hand. “I quickly learned my threshold for heat is not as good as theirs is,” Morgan jokes.

Previte found these international hostesses thanks to the Compass Rose clientele and their wide-ranging social and professional webs. “You can find people anywhere in the world through a restaurant in DC, I swear by that,” she says. “I don’t know if any other city in the country you would have connections like that.”

The skeleton of their trip was built on contacts from friends of friends, but many of their days morphed into something entirely different. “Every person I talked to would just be so kind,” Morgan says. They’d say, “‘Oh, you want to learn how to make that? Let me call my aunt,’ and they’d literally, on the spot, call that person, and then an hour later, I’d be at their door, walking in, and then they’d give you a hug, sit you down, and just put you to work.”

“You have to wonder: Would that happen here? I don’t know,” Previte muses. “Can you imagine the opposite—someone coming from Morocco and walking around Ohio being, like, ‘So, can I come in and cook?’” It’s not for lack of hospitality, she says, but rather an overreliance on scheduling. “This is our plan for the day; this is our plan for the week. We can’t just drop everything. The beauty of the rest of the world is if you meet someone the day before or that morning, they’re going to make time for you that afternoon.””

Read the rest of the story HERE!

Featured photo by Jennifer Chase.

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